The Not-So-Innocent Eye

Landscape into Art

by Kenneth Clark
Harper and Row, 2nd ed., 248 pp., $17.50

Le Paysage français au XIX siècle, 1824-1874: L’École de la nature

by Pierre Miquel
Éditions de la Martinelle, 3 vols., 800 pp., 1420 francs

In a famous outburst Michelangelo is supposed to have told the Portuguese painter Francisco de Holanda that “they paint in Flanders only to deceive the external eye, things that gladden you and of which you cannot speak ill. Their painting is of stuffs, bricks and mortar, the grass of the fields, the shadows of trees, and bridges and rivers, which they call landscapes, and little figures here and there. And all this, though it may appear good to some eyes, is in truth done without reason, without symmetry or proportion, without care in selecting or rejecting.” Such pictures, concluded Michelangelo, were only suitable for “young women, monks and nuns, or certain noble persons who have no ear for true harmony.”

The idea that landscape painting was too easy—both to produce and to enjoy—for long counted against it in elevated circles, and a vast amount of effort has been expended by artists themselves, by theorists, and by historians to prove the opposite. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers emphasized the role that could be played by a judicious choice of landscape in heightening the moral lessons imparted by the more serious narrative elements of the picture; Ruskin exalted the absolute value of truth as an end in itself; Ernst Gombrich has demonstrated the part that we, the beholders, are required to play if we are to interpret what the painter is apparently recording for us; Kenneth Clark has emphasized the extreme subtlety with which the balance between naturalism and tradition has to be maintained if the landscape is not to fall into the banal or the sterile. No one can believe any longer that those delightful little figures whom we can see in so many canvases of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nonchalantly sitting on some rocky ledge to sketch a waterfall or a precipice had only the problems of the weather to contend with as they set about trying to record faithfully what was before their eyes.

That the issues were very much more complicated than Michelangelo claimed has of course long been recognized by anyone who has paid any attention to them, but in recent years it has been Ernst Gombrich, more than anyone else, who has set out to provide a coherent theoretical scheme for the rise and practice of landscape painting.1

The old textbook ideas were simple enough. As man acquired more and more skill in overcoming the dangers posed by his natural surroundings, so he became more and more conscious of the beauty of the world and more and more determined to reproduce it. With increasing virtuosity he introduced landscapes at first into the backgrounds of the devotional or narrative pictures he was required to paint until gradually the ostensible subject of his panel or canvas was to all intents and purposes swamped by what had originally been thought of as only a decorative accessory. And once landscape painting achieved a certain autonomy, artists became increasingly anxious to throw away the dead weight of traditional representation which was based largely on conventional symbols and stereotypes, and to forget as far as possible what they “knew” so as to record instead only what they “saw.” This proved a long and laborious journey, but it reached a triumphant culmination in the masterpieces of the French Impressionists.

Old theories never die, they merely fade away. While drastically modifying this account, Gombrich himself retained those elements in it which conformed to the dictates of common sense and the evidence of history. He postulated that landscape acquired its independence as a genre not so much through accident as through the response of Northern artists to a specific demand for it from sophisticated Italian patrons who had read of the prevalence of landscape painting in antiquity and who wanted to have examples of it for themselves. To sum up in his own words:

I believe that the idea of natural beauty as an inspiration of art…is, to say the least, a very dangerous over-simplification…. Renaissance humanists talked about landscape painting before artistic practice caught up with them….

Moreover, Gombrich later demonstrated, at length and in closely argued pages, that modern theories of perception have shown that the old dichotomy between “seeing” and “knowing” was a fallacious one; far from rejecting the inheritance of the past in order to paint what he actually saw, the artist just as much as the beholder could make no sense of landscape at all unless that changing inheritance was constantly made use of to provide an initial “schema.” To the post-Gombrichian “the innocent eye” is about as innocent as, to the post-Freudian, are the effusive letters of Victorian schoolmasters to their favorite pupils.

What are probably the two most popular books on landscape written in the English language in the twentieth century, Christopher Hussey’s The Picturesque and Kenneth Clark’s Landscape into Art, both appeared before Gombrich’s ruthless shaking-up of old assumptions (in 1927 and 1949 respectively), but both have been republished since. Hussey gives an account of the speculations and activities of an extraordinarily brilliant, entertaining, and articulate group of English theorists, planners, and satirists (Payne Knight, Uvedale Price, the Reverend William Gilpin, Jane Austen, and Thomas Love Peacock among others). He shows how they sought to thrash out the meaning of the new concept of “picturesque” and, in collaboration with, or opposition to, a group of talented “improvers,” to change the very nature of the English landscape. Hussey’s learned and spirited book can be read still with great pleasure and profit as it has been for two generations.2

But it is a pity that the author was not able, as he had hoped, to produce a revised edition, for—even more than he himself realized—the intervening appearance of such “classics” as those by Clark and Gombrich has made some of the earlier part antiquated and untenable. If I quote one such passage, it is in no way to deride a book that has rightly proved of such value to so many people, but purely to indicate how radically our thinking about landscape painting has changed in the last half century:

With the gradual dwindling of the religious faith that inspired the early and mature periods of Italian art and inhibited the enjoyment of landscape, had grown the divine curiosity of the Renaissance…. The world in which Titian’s Madonnas move is as beautiful as the Mother of Christ, and as worthy of being painted. Indeed, it challenged his curiosity still more strongly. He knew why he loved the Virgin, but why did he love the trees and flowers and the blue Alps? Being a painter he left the answer to the philosophers and settled down to paint those aspects of nature that he felt most beautiful—the broad masses of sward and foliage, the light glinting through leaves and catching the tree trunks. He first among Europeans painted nature as he saw it, not as he knew it to be from the testimony of his other senses.

In his new, and very much revised, edition of Landscape into Art Kenneth Clark also writes of the depth of Titian’s feeling and powers of observation as a landscapist of fact, but at no stage, either in this or in the first edition (in which Titian’s role was much undervalued) does he ever postulate a necessary distinction between an artist’s sight and his other senses. Indeed, way back in 1949, he poured scorn on the classic formulation of this theory:

[Monet] said to an American pupil that “he wished he had been born blind and then had suddenly gained his sight so that he would have begun to paint without knowing what the objects were that he saw before him.” It is the most extreme, and most absurd, statement of the sensational aesthetic.

Both Clark and (a few years later) Gombrich were forced to consider the question of the miraculously cured blind man, and the ways in which they disposed of him are both revealing in themselves, and demonstrate why—unlike Hussey’s The Picturesque—the force of Landscape into Art has not been seriously impaired by Gombrich’s undermining of so many traditional assumptions. For Clark the flaw lies in the nature of the artist’s own gifts and achievements:

Actually Monet’s technique made him particularly dependent on the nature of his subjects; and they were limited. Only sun on water and sun on snow could give full play to the prismatic vision and the sparkling touch. In such pictures Monet has remained without an equal. But in order to prove his point he chose for the subjects of his experiments, Cathedrals and Haystacks. No doubt he did so intentionally in order to show that the most articulate works of man, and the most formless, were pictorially of equal importance to the painter of light. But the choice, especially that of cathedrals, was disastrous, because grey Gothic façades do not sparkle. In an attempt to make them vehicles of light Monet painted them now pink, now mauve, now orange; and it is evident that even he, with his marvellous capacity for seeing the complementary colours of a shadow, did not really believe that cathedrals looked like melting ice-creams.

For Gombrich the refutation of Monet’s aspirations takes a more scientific turn:

That blind man of Ruskin’s who suddenly gains sight does not see the world as a painting by Turner or Monet—even Berkeley knew that he could only experience a smarting chaos which he has to learn to sort out in an arduous apprenticeship. Indeed, some of these unfortunates give up and never learn it at all. For seeing is never just registering. It is the reaction of the whole organism to the patterns of light that stimulate the back of our eyes…. Nobody has ever seen a visual sensation, not even the impressionists, however ingenuously they stalked their prey.

Art historians have been wary of writing about Kenneth Clark for a number of reasons. In recent years his unconcealed contempt for pedantry has sometimes appeared to them to draw uncomfortably close to a denigration of scholarship. And the astonishing popularity he has been able to establish with the public offends their puritanism—or arouses their envy. In England, at least, he has managed to break through to the most unvisual of audiences: the high tables at our universities buzz with talk of Rembrandt after his television performances with all the fervor of football fans after a particularly exciting match.

Faced with this unheard-of phenomenon, professional art historians like to think of him as engaged in an activity parallel to their own, but essentially different from it, and he himself has often appeared to endorse this distinction. His later works have nearly all taken the form of reprinted talks, and have nearly all eschewed notes and bibliographies. It has therefore been found safest to refer blandly to his wonderful command of the English language and his place in a tradition of great preachers and popularizers which includes Hazlitt, Pater, Ruskin, and Roger Fry.

Both these points are true enough—but both are inadequate. Despite its feeling, its wit, and its common sense, Landscape into Art deserves to be thought about seriously, even by those whose interest in art history is of the narrowest kind. It is the first of the books in what can (pedantically) be called Clark’s “second period”; that is, it follows the very early Gothic Revival (itself incidentally almost exactly contemporary with Hussey’s The Picturesque and very similar to it in many ways) and his great studies devoted to Italian Renaissance art (above all, Leonardo and Piero della Francesca), and it precedes the extremely broad television programs (Classicism and Romanticism, Civilisation, etc.) which have established his huge popular fame as well as losing some of his early admirers.

Like the other two works in this group (The Nude and Rembrandt and the Italian Renaissance) it springs from lectures, given under academic auspices, on clearly defined topics of wide general interest. It covers a field ranging from medieval miniatures to the present day, and this will at once make clear how infinitely wider in scope and sympathy Clark is than any (but Roger Fry) of the ancestors that have been attributed to him. Indeed, it should surely be acknowledged as one of his great merits that he has not shirked the extraordinary problems raised merely by the huge and exceedingly diverse quantity of art that is now available to us. But so much material necessarily requires some organizing principle (other than that of jettisoning half the cargo) if it is to become digestible in the short space that Clark allows himself.

Here, I presume, the example of Roger Fry must have presented itself. Clark first read Fry at school and says of the experience that it “was the finest education in art criticism I ever received.” When at the age of sixty-six Roger Fry was at last given the visiting professorship at Cambridge which corresponded to the one that Clark himself was to receive twelve years later at Oxford and which provided the occasion for Landscape into Art, he embarked on the incredibly ambitious plan of applying his “theories of esthetics to the visual art of the whole world, in roughly chronological sequence, from Egypt to the present day.” He died long before this could be achieved, but it was Clark who edited these uncompleted Last Lectures. Certainly echoes of Fry can be heard in many of the pages of Landscape into Art, but Fry, for all the subtlety of his analyses and his fine appreciation of quality, shows in his later work a conspicuous lack of interest in the purpose of art other than as an end in itself. Clark’s approach is quite different.

In his autobiography he tells us that his life was changed by a lecture by Aby Warburg: “thenceforward…my mind was occupied in trying to answer the kind of questions that had occupied Warburg.” It seems worthwhile making use of this clue in trying to grasp the fuller implications of Landscape into Art. So many dreary and ludicrous articles have been written by scholars thinking of themselves as using Warburgian methods that many readers who are compelled to keep an eye on the scholarly journals tend to associate such methods with some sort of mechanical technique for “solving” the hidden meaning of pictures (even if those pictures clearly have no hidden meanings) as one solves a crossword puzzle—with the difference that in the case of the latter the solution can at least be verified.

In fact Warburg himself posed much more interesting questions about art. In trying to investigate what the sculpture of antiquity had meant for the artists of the Italian Renaissance he came to the conclusion that Winckelmann’s much later characterization of “noble simplicity and calm grandeur” had falsified what had once been its true significance. Fifteenth-century writers and painters, he found, made direct reference to antiquity in order to express movement and agitation rather than tranquillity, and above all they saw that antique forms could give them a figurative language capable of much greater emotional range and intensity than the medievalizing conventions which were still enormously fashionable in Florence. To some extent Warburg visualized the artists of the Renaissance as engaged in a ceaseless battle to achieve expressive power through the use of classical motifs directed against inadequate stereotypes.

Warburg’s impact is evident enough in Clark’s own writings on the Renaissance, and he himself has pointed out that “the parts of my writing that have given me most satisfaction, for example, the chapter in The Nude called ‘Pathos,’ are entirely Warburgian.” But although the raw material of landscape is infinitely more various than that of the human body, those features of it that can be transferred into art have proved, over the centuries, to be relatively limited. The influence of Warburg is necessarily less direct in this book, but it does seem to me that Clark is at his most persuasive when he is concerned with just those Warburgian problems of how even the landscape painter—whether of fact, or of fantasy, or of the ideal—sets out to widen and deepen his expressive language.

Moreover, ever since the Leonardo all Clark’s writings have shown him to have a profound instinctive sympathy with the aims of classical artists, while constantly trying to reconcile this love with the apparently more spontaneous emotions that can be aroused in the modern consciousness by nonclassical forms. Landscape into Art is concerned, among other things, with two questions that arise out of these conflicting emotions. What are “those aspects of Nature which produce an immediate response in the Western European mind?” and to what extent can one establish “families” of forms and shapes which, across the centuries, can be used by quite unrelated artists who seem to have wished to express the same sort of feelings about the outside world?

In a superb lecture, “Moments of Vision,” also delivered in Oxford five years after Landscape into Art, Clark elaborated some of these issues more specifically, and briefly discussed the relationship between the “central obsessive images” of certain great artists—Leonardo, Van Gogh, and others—and those moments of heightened perception which everyone has experienced at one time or another, usually in childhood; and he toyed with what he himself acknowledged to be the dangerous territory of “the collective unconscious.” Clearly no answer can be given to these questions, but I cannot see how anyone claiming to be seriously interested in the “history of art” can fail to raise them, at least in his own field, and can fail to recognize that their constant presence in Landscape into Art, sometimes below and sometimes above the surface, immeasurably enriches its texture.

The second—and better illustrated—edition differs quite considerably from the first. Clark points out that two books have made him change his mind on important matters, Carlo Pedretti’s Leonardo da Vinci and Jack Lindsay’s Turner. As a result he now pays more attention than he formerly did to the part played by direct observation in the creation of some of Leonardo’s scenes of mountains and storms, as well as to the pessimism and grandeur of some of Turner’s early historical pictures. Elsewhere he has shown himself responsive to the reappraisal of neoclassical art which has proved so influential in recent years: Valenciennes is warmly praised, and—real proof to some future historian of tase that this edition dates from the 1970s as opposed to the 1940s—Clark directly reverses his earlier opinion that Samuel Palmer was a superior artist to Caspar David Friedrich.3

In general his tastes have widened, though they do not yet embrace the Pre-Raphaelites whose popularity has so vastly increased since 1949, and even among more established painters some of his exclusions remain inexplicable. To ignore Watteau, Hubert Robert, and Fragonard (whose Fête de Saint Cloud in the Banque de France surely is one of the most magical landscapes ever painted) on the grounds, presumably, that in the eighteenth century, “that winter of the imagination, the landscape of fact degenerated into topography [and] the landscape of fantasy degenerated into the picturesque” is, to this reviewer, as odd as was his decision to give no place to Goya’s Maja desnuda in The Nude. And where he very occasionally and very briefly ventures into the social history of art (“The landscape of fact, like all portraiture, is a bourgeois form of art”), I am unable to follow him. But to worry too much about these and certain other points of detail would mean to miss the point of an enthralling book whose value has not yet been sufficiently exploited by those who care and write about painting.

There is, indeed, room for a history of landscape painting,” writes Clark in his preface disowning any intention of writing one, “but it would have to be at least five times as long as the present volume, and conceived on different lines.” A book conceived on very different lines indeed and considerably more than five times as long has recently been published on French landscape painting between 1824 (the year of the “Romantic” salon) and 1874 (the year of the first Impressionist Exhibition). The topic is of the greatest possible fascination because it was during this period—as was recognized by all observant contemporaries—that landscape painting assumed its dominant role in European art. Robert L. Herbert’s stimulating catalogue of the exhibition “Barbizon Revisited,” which he organized in 1962 in San Francisco and other American cities, was among the first scholarly works to survey the field for many years, and a number of monographs on individual artists have appeared since then. Four centenaries—of the births of Turner and Constable, and of the deaths of Corot and Millet—all celebrated by splendid exhibitions, have quickened the pace of research still further in the last couple of years, and an over-all view of the period as a whole would be very welcome.

Art lovers looking for such a view in Pierre Miquel’s ambitiously titled Le Paysage français au XIX siècle are in for a shock, and should be warned of what is to be found in these three formidable, and formidably expensive, volumes. A short account of the evolution of landscape painting in general is so full of inaccuracies, misprints, and sheer rubbish that it is best forgotten as quickly as possible, and the reader will be tempted to hurry to those sections of the book which are concerned only with M. Miquel’s main topic—the nineteenth century. More trouble awaits him. About three hundred years ago a great and influential French critic, Roger des Piles, at the end of a very lively discussion of the merits of the Old Masters, drew up a Balance des Peintres in which he awarded each one of them marks for their achievements. Thus Michelangelo was given 8 (out of a possible 20) for composition, 17 for drawing, 4 for color, and 8 for expression; Rubens’s scores for the same attributes were 18, 13, 17, and 17; and a number of other famous painters were graded in the same way.

Irrespective of what subsequent critics have felt about des Piles’s actual opinions such an approach has usually been thought of as something of an aberration: it has indeed been much ridiculed. Now M. Miquel has produced something very similar. He has composed a table of thirty French artists of the nineteenth century who painted landscapes, and of nine possible ways of classifying them. Néoclassiques et réformateurs, Romantiques humanitaires, Naturalistes analystes are a few among his categories. It thus becomes possible to check the characteristics of each of his painters: Corot, for instance, is a neoclassic and reformer, an idealist, a conciliator, and a synthetic naturalist; Louis Français is not only all of these, but he is, in addition, a realist and a scientific naturalist. “The time has come,” observes M. Miquel, “to elaborate a scientific and critical methodology. After the history of art, the time has come to elaborate the rules of the science of art.” This, he concludes, will take a very long time. We can agree with him there.

Such eccentricities would not matter much if we could feel happier about the passages devoted to the individual artists chosen for discussion. Such, unfortunately, is not the case. The life and career of each one is arranged chronologically, so that it is theoretically possible to see what Théodore Rousseau or Diaz was producing in any given year, and also what was being said about them. Much contemporary documentation is drawn upon, and much of it is unpublished. When the material has been published and can thus be checked, it is not always reliable or relevant; where it is unpublished, its whereabouts is virtually never given, though it appears from the preface that M. Miquel has drawn primarily on his own collection.

The same appears to be true of the choice of illustrations. Many of these reproduce, in good color, pictures which are obviously of great beauty and sometimes of importance, but—as with the documents—we are only rarely told where these pictures are to be found. It is certainly a very rewarding pleasure to be shown quite unfamiliar works of art; but it is absurd to imply that a balanced history of nineteenth-century French landscape painting can be illustrated on this basis alone; that—to take but one example—an understanding of Corot can be obtained on the basis of only two pictures in public collections, one in Reims and one in Tokyo. M. Miquel has brought to light and documented a number of very attractive artists about whom little enough is known; for that future historians will indeed be grateful to him—but his book will have to be used with extreme care, and one can only regret that he has not put his obviously considerable knowledge of the subject to the best possible use.

  1. 1

    See E.H. Gombrich, The Renaissance Theory of Art and the Rise of Landscape, 1950, reprinted in Norm and Form (Phaidon, 1966), and Art and Illusion (Princeton, 1960).

  2. 2

    Hussey can now be supplemented by The Genius of the Place—The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820 (edited by John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, Harper & Row, 1976) which provides a useful survey of current thinking, an up-to-date bibliography, and an anthology of texts ranging from Wotton to Peacock, many of which are little known and very inaccessible.

  3. 3

    The discovery of Friedrich by the non-Germanic world has been among the most exciting events experienced by art lovers since the war. As well as a memorable exhibition in London (1972) and the recent acquisition by the Louvre of a not very distinguished canvas, a number of illustrated books have added to our understanding of this visionary but unrhetorical painter. Of these, it is worth singling out here one of the most recent volumes in the Italian series Classici dell’Arte (introduced and edited by Helmut Borsch-Supan, Rizzoli, Milano) because it enables me to pay a tribute to an enterprise that is among the most useful in current art publishing anywhere in the world.

    The color reproductions in these volumes are not always very happy, and the minute black and white ones are obviously intended only for reference. But the documentation they contain, their generally high standards of accuracy, their astonishing range which seems to be uninfluenced by considerations of fashion or of the market place and their amazingly reasonable prices make them invaluable to the private (as well as the public) art library. Anyone interested in landscape painting will want to own this Friedrich volume which, like the others, will presumably appear in English as well as in Italian.